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The limestone-rich benchlands that sit above the southwestern shores of Lake Ontario are home to standout wines with cool-climate complexity and distinctive mineral character. Here’s a selection of wines from the Niagara Escarpment’s high-flying sub-appellations—Beamsville Bench, Short Hills Bench and Twenty Mile Bench—and the lowdown on what makes them so special.

West of St. Catharines and below the forested crest of the Niagara Escarpment are north-facing slopes that are perfect for winegrowing, and include (running west to east) the prominent bench formation of Beamsville Bench, the double bench of Twenty Mile Bench and the rolling hills of Short Hills Bench. Sheltered from prevailing winds by the physical Escarpment, these cool-climate bench appellations benefit from lake breezes that reflect off the Escarpment somewhat like a wave pool. Higher elevation means gradual spring warming that decreases the risk of frost, while in autumn, the lake-warmed air trapped in the ‘wave pool’ effect extends the growing season.

The composition of soils in this region varies widely, from clay and silt to calcareous clay loam. Underlying this earthy tapestry is the fossil-rich dolomitic limestone of the Escarpment, which contributes distinct minerality to many of the region’s wines. Each of the three benchland subappellations has its own VQA designation, which means that wines made entirely from fruit grown in any of these areas can specify the sub-appellation on the label. The overarching appellation, VQA Niagara Escarpment, can include fruit from vineyards in any and all of the three sub-appellations.

Virtually all cool-climate varieties thrive in these benchland vineyards, yet it’s those varieties that best communicate the minerality of the Escarpment that offer something truly evocative. Riesling, widely considered the most expressive white wine grape, can make beautiful wines here. So can Pinot Noir, which is almost universally agreed to be the most expressive red wine grape. The world’s most famous white variety, Chardonnay (including its aromatic Musqué cousin), when handled with finesse in the winery, can also produce wines of exquisite character that speak of the limestone bench on which they were grown.


The Finer Points

CAVE SPRING ESTATE BOTTLED CHARDONNAY MUSQUÉ 2014
VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Escarpment
246579 (XD) 750 mL $16.95

Wonderfully perfumed, with aromas and flavours of orchard fruit, citrus and spices.

89 points (David Lawrason)

Aromatic & Flavourful

HENRY OF PELHAM ESTATE PINOT NOIR 2012
VQA Short Hills Bench, Niagara Escarpment
268391 (D) 750 mL $24.95

Charming, supple and refined with cherry, wood spice, cedar and autumnal earthiness.

90 points (David Lawrason)

Medium-bodied & Fruity

FIELDING ESTATE BOTTLED RIESLING 2015
VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Escarpment
251439 (M) 750 mL $19.95

A touch of smoky mineral in this off-dry Riesling bursting with flowers, apple and citrus.

90 points (Rémy Charest)

Aromatic & Flavourful

ROCKWAY WILD FERMENT CHARDONNAY 2014
VQA Twenty Mile Bench, Niagara Escarpment
484626 (XD) 750 mL $22.95

Gorgeously textured and complex with orchard fruit, citrus, pineapple and baking spice.

(Vic Harradine)

Full-bodied & Rich